Published Apr 26, 2022
A “super healthy” 48-year-old woman living in Kula, Hawaii, is thankful she took an at-home colon cancer screening test because it caught her disease before it progressed further.
Christine Bronstein exercises regularly, doesn’t drink alcohol and avoids sugar. But, she noticed some blood in her stool last fall, and while she blamed it on hemorrhoids, she decided to order an at-home colon cancer screen test to be sure.
She took the test in January and the results came back positive. The positive test result prompted her to seek medical advice from her primary care doctor to figure out next steps, but he responded with a simple text: “You don’t have cancer :)”
But Christine wasn’t convinced, pushing to have a colonoscopy, which is an exam used to detect changes or abnormalities in the colon and/or rectum, highlighting the importance of advocating for yourself.
Thankfully her doctor listened and went through with the colonoscopy because it revealed a roughly 2-inch tumor growing in her rectum. She was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. She also had two polyps (small growths in the colon that aren’t yet cancerous) removed during the procedure. She was told the polyps could’ve become malignant had they not been caught.
Christine is currently undergoing chemotherapy at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. The goal is to shrink her tumor with chemotherapy as much as possible and then surgically remove it in June, assuming all goes as planned.
“I’m very lucky that I did my test when I did my test,” Christine told TODAY.
“This thing really takes people down right in their prime. … I think the problem why this is becoming the No. 1 killer for younger people is because their symptoms get denied,” she added. “Doctors just do not know, so they’re not catching it until it’s already metastasized.”
Screening tests you can do at home are becoming more and more prevalent across all cancers, including colon cancer. But can sending out a stool sample really be as effective as going into your doctor’s office and having a colonoscopy? The short answer is no.
In Christine’s situation, she took the at-home test because she began experiencing colon cancer symptoms. She followed up with her doctor and when her concerns were dismissed, she pushed to have the recommended screening method (a colonoscopy) because she wanted to be 100% sure of her health. However, if Christine’s at-home test was negative, she may never have reached out to her doctor.
SurvivorNet experts say these at-home tests should never replace traditional screening methods, even though some of the tests allege they’re a good replacement for colonoscopies.
It’s unclear what type of at-home colon cancer screening test Christine took, but a popular one is called Cologuard. This test is definitely not a good replacement for a colonoscopy, according to Dr. Heather Yeo, a colorectal surgeon at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian.
Cologuard is an at-home test that helps with some parts of colon cancer screening. To use it, you order a kit, which instructs you to give a stool sample. Then, you send the stool sample back to the company, which runs some tests to see whether there are any signs of cancer in your stool. But stool samples aren’t enough when it comes to colon cancer screening.
“There has been some news lately about at-home stool tests saying that they are as successful as colonoscopy in picking up early cancers. It’s not quite true,” Dr. Yeo previously told SurvivorNet.
“They’re really good at picking up more advanced cancers (like Christine’s stage 3 cancer) … but unlike colonoscopy, they can’t pick up the pre-cancerous lesions called polyps that we need to take out to prevent cancer,” Dr. Yeo added.
All colon cancer starts as polyps, which are small growths in the colon that aren’t yet cancerous, but have the potential to develop into cancer. A polyp that’s found during a colonoscopy is removed, which can actually prevent the development of cancer. A pathologist determines if it’s a benign polyp or if it’s colon cancer. Most polyps (about 95%) that are removed are precancerous, meaning that they haven’t yet progressed to cancer.
Colonoscopies are the only way for doctors to detect the polyps so they can remove them, Dr. Zuri Murrell, a colorectal surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, previously told SurvivorNet.
“These polyps have no signs, no symptoms,” he added. “The only way that you can know you have them is if you do a colonoscopy, and you see them, and you take them out during that procedure. And if you do that, those cannot grow into colon cancer.”
So, as you can tell, it’s vitally important to get screened for colon cancer appropriately rather than taking these at-home screening tests.
The American Cancer Society, as well as SurvivorNet experts, recommend that people at average risk of developing colon cancer start regular screenings at age 45.
People are considered to be at average risk if they DO NOT have:
Contributing: Zara Sternberg